The connection that people have with their cars is one of the strongest bonds that a human can have with an inanimate object. For many owners, their ride is not just a way to get from A to B, it’s an extension of their personality and style. Those are the people that photographer Ryan Schude seeks out for his project “Them And Theirs.”
What began with shooting vanity license plates morphed into documenting interesting cars and their equally interesting owners in unique locations. These aren’t the fastest or the most expensive cars, but that doesn’t make them any less visually arresting.
We caught up with Schude to discuss the genesis of the project, how he finds his subjects, and the one that got away.
Playboy: What inspired you to start this project?
Ryan Schude: Back in 2001 at the San Francisco Art Institute, I started a series on large format film photographing people with their cars that had personalized license plates. It lasted just the length of a semester, and I didn’t pick it back up until 2004 when it became apparent that I was more interested in a combination of the car itself, the owner, and location without needing a vanity plate for the hook.
Playboy: Would you consider yourself a “car guy”?
Schude: Yes and no. I obviously have a passion for photographing cars, but i don’t really know anything about them technically. I couldn’t tell you the year, make, or model of half the cars I shoot. It sort of makes me a bad person, like how I also don’t know the lyrics to most of my favorite songs. For some reason though I can still quote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off verbatim.
Playboy: What kind of car do you drive?
Schude: 1972 Jaguar XJ6
Playboy: What have you learned through this project about people’s relationships with their cars?
Schude: On a superficial level, it seems absurd to use what should be a functional tool to communicate your personality to the world. Can you imagine walking into a tech office and seeing someone intentionally using an outdated laptop and proudly waiting for their Windows 98 to load Explorer? It is easy to assume that people who care too much about what they drive must share an unhealthy level of self awareness. One might argue that people’s motivations lie heavier in their appreciation for the craftsmanship of the vehicle itself as opposed to how it reflects on them for simply driving it around. But many people in the series could care less about either of these things and the choice to include them has more to do with who they are and what sort of concept we can build around their personality.
**Playboy:* Do you usually meet the cars before the owners? If so, do you have preconceived ideas of what the owners will be like based on their cars?*
Schude: The order of that is never the same. If I see a car on the side of the road that I want to shoot and leave a note for the owner, of course I am making assumptions about what they are like but it’s always impossible to know. I’ve left notes for two totally different cars that were unlocked and had their windows rolled down with stuff strewn about the seats. They both called me back and were about 40 years apart in age but shared similar demeanors. I am certainly interested to meet both eventually and see if my preconceived notions about their similarities hold true.
**Playboy:* Do you have any “one that got away” stories?*
Schude: Too many. Most notably a 1960’s Cirtroen SM that I ran into on a bike ride. The owner happened to be sitting in it and was coincidentally an automotive engineer and head of that department at the Art Center in Pasadena. He seemed interested in the project at first but has yet to return one of my emails. Maybe one day…
**Playboy:* Is there a dream car and/or owner that you would want to photograph?*
Schude: How about [photographer] William Eggleston in 1972 with a Ford Country Squire in Pea Green with Wood Paneling?
Playboy: The locations are like the third character in these photos alongside the car and its owner. How do you scout locations and then pair them with the right car?
Schude: Sometimes this takes years of waiting and searching for just the right location to present itself. I like to enter into a dialogue with the owners and see if they have any ideas about a place that resonates strongly with who they are. Their home is a good starting point and if it works visually, I’ll almost always prefer to shoot them there since it tells so much about their world. Otherwise, we talk about their jobs, hobbies, and interests to see if we can come up with any relevant signifiers in this direction. Just as often, the color and mood of the vehicle inspires a hunt for complimentary backgrounds unrelated to the person themselve. Once it is found, the location creates the environment with which to begin shaping concepts for potential narratives, props, wardrobe, actions, etc.
Playboy: How did you come to photograph Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh?
Schude: Mark and his business partners were searching for a photographer to shoot a new eyewear line they are starting based on his own iconic eyeglasses. They also needed some portraits of Mark for PR purposes and while we were brainstorming ideas they said, “Oh, he has this old Mercedes that might be cool for a shot.” I concurred.
Playboy: What plans do you have for “Them and Theirs”?
Schude: A limited selection will be included in a book I am having published next year but it is focused on my work as a whole and not just this project. A dedicated book can wait, there’s no hurry, the series is at about 50 so far but I’d like to have a few hundred to edit from ideally.
Playboy: What other projects are you working on?
Schude: I have a solo show in Istanbul, Turkey this October displaying staged, narrative, tableaux from 2010 to present. Some previously unseen images will be shown that were recently shot in Big Sur and Sequoia National Park. November is also slated for a show in Santa Monica of similar tableau work as well as at least one image from “Them and Theirs.”
Playboy: Anything else you want to add?
Schude: Please feel free to email me if you have a vehicle that might be good for the series.
To see more of Schude’s work, visit his website ryanschude.com